!!!SPOILER WARNING!!! THIS POST ASSUMES YOU’VE SEEN ALL OF KILL LA KILL
Kill la Kill has been a fairly controversial show since its start. Back in the early episodes I remember seeing a great deal of questions suspicious of what I’d call the anime’s “integrity.” Does this story have any legs or is is just a random assortment of wacky and violent things? Is there a solid sense of character development at work, or is it all style and flash? Are the ridiculously skimpy outfits there to titillate or to make a point?
In other words, is the show smart or stupid?
For those who’ve watched through to the end, I think the answer is pretty clear: much like the question of whether Ryuko and Senketsu are human or clothing, Kill la Kill is neither smart nor stupid, yet it’s also smart and stupid.
I’m oversimplifying the point in the hope of expressing my thoughts succinctly, so let me elaborate.
A lot of features of Kill la Kill simultaneously buck and conform to convention. Traditionally, when we think of narrative in anime, we think of it as the visual style serving the plot, but in a lot of cases Kill la Kill shifts between which facet, narrative or style, takes priority, and sometimes they act as equals. In this last regard, I think one of the best moments to showcase this in Kill la Kill is Satsuki’s apology to Ryuko, where her characteristic blinding aura takes on new meaning.
Kill la Kill also encompasses both of anime-as-animation’s dual personas. Is anime a detailed and expressive medium which breathes life into its characters, or is it a series of creative money-saving cheats honed through decades to become a craft all of its own? In Kill la Kill, while it’s easy to tell which moments are which, often the scenes which exemplify the latter quality of anime are so smart and effective that I wouldn’t be surprised if people preferred them to be “static” shortcuts.
When it comes to anime and pop culture references, the series is rife with them. Yet, there’s no need to “get” them to enjoy the show, or to take meaning from it. I’m 90% sure that Ryuko and Senketsu’s decent to Earth is a reference to the ending to Zambot 3, only the show takes the extremely bittersweet conclusion of Zambot 3 and turns it into something more sweet than bitter.
(Pay attention to the last 6 minutes or so. Also, Zambot 3 spoilers of course).
What about the theme of clothing? Did it truly serve the show in the end? When Senketsu burns up in the atmosphere and tells Ryuko that all girls stop wearing their school uniforms eventually, while it doesn’t explain everything in the show, it does highlight one of the consistent themes of the series, which is that it’s about girls growing into women. The moments of embarrassment, the rebelliousness and desire to make up for lost time, there are a lot of different threads at work here (pardon the pun), which may not be entirely consistent, but it doesn’t feel like the ideas presented by the series are any lesser for that. Ryuko’s motto, that she’s all about not making sense, comes to the fore here. While what she says is true in a sense, her ability to embrace nonsense, to swing wildly in terms of her emotions, and to come to conclusions which are less about solving problems and more about coming to terms with things in ways which fit her, all of that has its own logic.
What works, works, and who’s to say anyone has to follow the template laid out for them? Though, even that isn’t wholly consistent because the “purpose” of Senketsu has a clear arc, at least in terms of utility. Of course, the real purpose of Senketsu was to bond with Ryuko in more ways than one.
As for one of the main controversies, that of the show’s depictions of female characters, I find that we’re left with a surprisingly complex situation as well. All of the major female characters in Kill la Kill are strong in significantly different ways, and they each bear their own distinct personalities and personas which celebrate their broad archetypes but also encourage viewers to think about those differences as more than just “uniqueness points.” Ryuko’s strength is her passion, Satsuki’s is her indomitable will, and Mako’s is her relentlessness. This extends to a certain degree to the rest of the cast as well, for both men and women, notably the Elite Four. With respect to the tendency for the series to dress its central characters up in absurdly revealing outfits, it’s a curious thing that often the way that Ryuko and Satsuki carry themselves drives attention away from their curves and towards their intensity. It’s not even entirely a matter of personality over looks, as Senketsu and Junketsu themselves also sometimes help to, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, put the focus on themselves and not on the bodies to which they’re clinging.
While I find that the initial criticism of Kill la Kill came from a place of fear (oh boy, it’s anime at it again!), I think those who were initially wary of Kill la Kill also had every right to be. There was no definitive sign that the differences and the “stupid” elements wouldn’t transform the show into an Ikkitousen or some other show where the girls are action figures placed into awkwardly sexual poses. There was no definitive sign that its setting would be any different from Baka and Test or any number of series where the idea of “high school” is pushed to the “extreme.” What Kill la Kill manages to do, however, is give these inclinations teeth. It shows that these tropes and “vapid elements” have more power in them than simply their ability to distract and excite, that they can be engaged and utilized to express something I would dare call truly artistic.